401. We Have Outrun Our Warrantee

January 9, 2015

As unique individuals, each of us might be the only one who appreciates the difference we strive to make by acting in the world as we do. At the same time, we often underestimate the damage we do by undertaking those same actions. We are change agents by nature. And hugely successful. But not as we might intend.

I own a two-volume report of an international symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, held in Princeton during June, 1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1193 pages in 2 volumes, © 1956 by the University of Chicago.) Edited by William L. Thomas Jr., the report details the impact that humans have had on the habitats we have occupied since antiquity, and changed forever after, almost always for the worse.

The report makes fascinating but extremely hard reading. Not hard because of any density or specialized jargon; hard because of its crystal-clear message, which we disregard at our peril. As our numbers increase, our collective wayfaring is inevitably wounding the planet that supports us, impairing its habitability for not only ourselves but for many of the species that share our space with us. Global Warming, also our doing, particularly through our power generation and motorized travels and transport, is but our latest assault on the hospitable planet that supports our every activity.

In his summary remarks on “Prospect” at the end of the report, Lewis Mumford, one of three main contributors to the structure of the symposium, includes these words of caution derived from the decline of Rome:

In the third century A.D. an objective observer might well have predicted, on the basis of the imperial public works program, an increase in the number of baths, gladiatorial arenas, garrison towns, and aqueducts. But he would have had no anticipation of the real future, which was the product of a deep subjective rejection of the whole classic way of life and so moved not merely away from it but in the opposite direction. Within three centuries the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, the Roman baths were closed, and some of the great Roman buildings were either being used as Christian churches or treated as quarries for building new structures. Can anyone who remembers this historic transformation believe that the rate of scientific and technological change must accelerate indefinitely or that this technological civilization will inevitably remain dominant and will absorb all the energies of life for its own narrow purposes—profit and power? (Volume 2, pages 1142-1143.)

Our individual actions—our wayfaring journeys—it seems, have massive collective consequences. Not only those we purposefully strive for, but also the cumulative impact of our species on the blue planet that hosts us in the vastness of space.

We don’t mean any harm, but deadly harm we surely inflict.

Now that polar ice sheets are melting, the race is on to claim the fish and resources that our carelessness is opening unto us in the Arctic. Never mind the polar bears. We are out to consume the flesh of our planet, not realizing our own folly. How cruel, how thoughtless, how ironic is that? We plead innocent, but stand guilty—each one of us—nonetheless.

No, this is not the point of my story about our active engagement with our surroundings. But it is a pointed digression to suggest that minds which evolved to survive in a Paleolithic world may not be suited to a world we have largely modified for our own comfort. Can we further evolve in time to save ourselves and our world, or are we destined to thwart our own intentions—as I so often do in my dreams?

Perhaps we can stage a recall of our advanced model of humans and have chips inserted in our brains that will program us to recognize when we have done more damage than Earth can bear. I merely wish to point out that, as currently equipped, we have outrun our warrantee and are doomed for the scrapyard, proving our mortality yet again (as if more proof were needed).

As I have written, we act to make a difference in the world and, indeed, we are proving successful beyond our wildest dreams, but not in the ways we intended.

We took a wrong turn getting out of the Neolithic, inventing roads and engines and cities and weapons, which led to assembly lines, cars, atom bombs, and the fix we are now in. We would have done better striding on the legs we were born with instead of lounging in luxury motorcars. But that’s a far less-likely ending to our story.

 

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